We all know that myth embodiment is the life and soul of Bharatanatyam as we know it. The techniques of actualising old myths and archetypes have undergone tremendous changes, as also the approach towards myth embodiment. Let me start with Balasaraswati whom I have seen frequently as a teenager. Take the famous Tamil padam Teruvil vaaraano. By the time she arrived at the crucial line in the charanam, the dancer had established the various shades of the nayika's longing for union.
In retrospect I realise how balanced and restrained Balamma's myth depiction was. And in proportion to the requirements of the nayika's feelings of nostalgia and longing. This auchitya (appropriateness) also prevented rasa virodha (conflict of successive sentiments). A detailed expansion of the Tripura myth here would have been antithetical to sringara, and raudra and bhayanaka would have swamped the delicate mood of love. Again, a lengthy expansion of the scorching of Manmatha 'incident' would have brought in too much karuna. Balamma handled the tales in a way which accented veera, and adbhuta, which are rasa-s complementary to sringara.
I mention this because, recently I saw a young dancer, intent on highlighting the glories of the town where the nayaka lived, scattering blood and gore with the story of Manuneedi Chozhan. After that jugupsa, there could be no return to rati.
Balamma achieved her sadharanikarana (universalisation) with a fine sense of balance. She did not offer detailed narration as we have in current practice, nor did she rely on realism. Instead of narration, she offered suggestion; instead of drama, only lyricism. She achieved this by the use of a highly charged imagery and many symbols.
I have not seen Rukmini Devi on the stage, but I deduce from accounts of those who have seen her dance that she too retained a subtlety of expression. Her choice of songs like Ananda natana prakasam made her utilise angika abhinaya to the utmost in embodying the myth of the dancing Siva. In her later years, she made powerful and imaginative use of the nritta in her dance-dramas to depict mythic situations and characters.
As a viewer, I have seen a progressive attrition in the quality of dhwani the connotative content of the dance. While, in the past, realism was used minimally and for variety, now it is the staple fare. And while, at one time, imagery set up concentric circles of meaning for the audience to ruminate over, today's dancer relies on narrativity.
Practical reasons have dictated this change. The discerning viewers have decreased in number. The same Mylapore mama or mami who sighs over a subtle phrase in Sahana, is blind to the suggestive motifs in a padam.
The halls are vast, the proscenium does not provide intimate space for bonding between artist and viewer. How can the spectator in the back row see an eyebrow movement? Or the twitch of the lips? Narration of well-worn myths with lots of description has been the answer. The aham, the interior landscape, has to be expressed through large sweeping gestures and lots of energetic movements to gain attention.
Today's viewers have been conditioned by the fast-moving slickly cut visuals of the cinema, by the close-ups and melodramatic images on tv. Their attention span is limited. They have little time and even less energy to put in the effort to understand subtleties. The performers belong to the same generation. We see the impact of the big and small screens in the dancer's aharya, angika and satvika abhinaya. They have to appeal to tv-inured viewers whose response is passive reception, not active participation.
Narrativity and realism do provide easy access to the myth for both performer and viewer. Whether old myths or new myths or old myths interpreted anew. But they tend to make the myth static. In sacrificing the rich range of ambiguities, multiplicities and suggestions, the dancer finds it difficult to contemporise the old myths and archetypes as she could, earlier, with the use of indirection, lyricism and imagery.
The challenge faced by the young dancers in this period of transition is to strike a balance and finding an inner artistic truth to satisfy herself and her audience.
Past Present & Future
Even a highly codified form like Bharatanatyam gives enormous freedom to a creative artist to experiment and innovate. And I am happy to see this freedom being exercised by several of our talented artists. By doing so they are neither perpetuating the past nor defying traditional values but are only contributing towards the growth of the tradition through change and innovation.
We often hear complaints about the repertoire of Bharatanatyam and other dance-forms. 'If you have seen one varnam, you have seen them all'. But we cannot altogether ignore the fact that there have been several meaningful innovations and experimentations, both in thematic content and aspects of pure dance. Issues such as environmental pollution, atoms for peace, wildlife, deforestation and women's empowerment have been adapted by well-known dancers. There have been commendable reinterpretation of mythological characters and stories in a manner relevant and meaningful to contemporary situations.
We are at the threshold of the new millennium and we are going through a period of transition with all its attendant restlessness and pressures from all sides. There are conflicts of ideas, misalliances as well as happy marriages, honest experiments as well as cheap imitations, genuine search as well as commercial vulgarisation. The old and the puritan moan the loss of traditional values,- the young and the enterprising cry out for new worlds to explore and conquer. We are in the midst of an exciting era of change and revaluation. We should certainly not abhor the idea of change but we should demand of our innovators that their attempts be guided by great intellectual perception and artistic integrity. The whole process can be frustrating and enervating at times, but it is a sure sign of a rebirth, the transition from the past to the present.
And now to the question: What is it going to be in the new millennium? Past perpetuation or present continuum? These terms and concepts are not mutually exclusive. The past supports and supplements the present. The present is a product of the past and a pointer to the future. What is important is the manner in which we adapt the mould of the past to meet the demands of the present and to shape the future.
Of course, there are conflicts, but then conflict is energy and it is out of conflict with oneself that true art is born. Conflict with others results only in rhetoric.